Steubenville Elects Bush

The election is past, and it is the season for taking credit.

George W. Bush won the Catholic vote in record numbers for a Republican candidate — 52% overall and 56.5% of the religiously active. There is no question that the combination of evangelical and Catholic voters was the primary factor in the president's re-election.

But, as they say, “success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan.” Thus far I have seen the credit for the election taken by Catholic radio stations in upstate New York, Catholic activists in northern Virginia and, most preposterous of all, a program called “Faithful Citizenship” sponsored by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference! (Catholics in Massachusetts, by the way, have the worst record of voting for Catholic pro-abortion politicians in the nation.)

For the record, I think the real credit should go to the candidate, George W. Bush, period. Once his message was heard by faithful Catholics, they responded. Catholics cast the highest number of votes for a Republican candidate in the history of U.S. elections, even though the president was running against a Catholic candidate.

But if I were to give credit to anyone or anything other than Bush, I would want to include the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Without the influence of Franciscan University, I am convinced the 20 electoral votes of Ohio would have gone to John Kerry. The Franciscan community registered voters, handed out voter guides, participated in a 72-hour program to get out the vote and protested the appearance of Kerry and Edwards in their college town.

These students are a big reason that Ohio Catholics voted 55% for Bush to 44% for Kerry and that Catholics attending Mass every week voted at a whopping 65% for Bush compared to 35% for Kerry.

Kerry's Catholic outreach effort, by the way, concentrated on Ohio. I guess it didn't work!

The southeast corner of Ohio, where Steubenville is located, was for decades dominated by the labor wing of the Democratic Party. When the Democratic Party decided there was no room for a pro-life voice, the Steubenville voters, like Catholic Democrats everywhere, faced a dilemma: Can I continue to vote the Democratic ticket when the party has embraced values that contradict my faith?

The difference between the situation in southeast Ohio and other labor-dominated areas is the presence of a strong, vibrant Catholic institution. For decades, Franciscan University — first under the leadership of Franciscan Father Michael Scanlan and now in the capable hands of Franciscan Father Terence Henry — has slowly changed the cultural and political climate of that area.

The uncertainty of Catholic Democrats translated into votes for the Republican presidential candidate.

Why? Not because he was Republican, but because he protects innocent life.

John Kerry and his campaign should have known they were in for trouble when he came to town in September.

Franciscan alumnus Michael Hernon joined with university student Gabriel Hahn, son of Catholic apologist Scott Hahn, to organize an anti-Kerry rally where 500 Franciscan University students combined with another 300 Steubenville citizens to protest the visit. Students carried signs that read, “Crusade for the Defense of Our Catholic Church,” “You Can't be Catholic and Pro-Abortion” and “Pontius Pilate Was Also Personally Opposed.”

According Fox News, it was the largest anti-Kerry rally of the campaign, and the coverage saturated Ohio media outlets for the next few days. The hostile reception in a traditional Democratic city stunned the Kerry campaign. The protest was repeated when vice presidential candidate John Edwards came to town.

In the election post-mortem, Douglas Brinkley, the biographer of Kerry, used the example of the Steuben-ville rally in explaining why Kerry lost the Catholic vote in Ohio — and thus the election.

Franciscan students, organized by Hernon (who worked as director of Catholic outreach at the Republican National Committee from 2000 to 2002), helped to distribute voter guides to almost all the local churches, even though many were removed later by pastors due to “IRS issues.”

These voter guides were based on candidates’ stances on abortion, marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia and cloning. Catholic moms, dads, young adult singles and students worked all day at the polls, making calls to get out the vote. And, in the weeks before the election, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life led rallies in support of casting a pro-life vote.

At the end of the day, support for Bush in Jefferson County, where Steubenville is the county seat, was up 4% from 2000 — which was already up 14% from 1996. This after a Kerry visit, two Edwards visits and an overall slump in the area economy.

What was the Catholic vote in the county? There are no records that specific. But assuming that 26% of the Jefferson County vote is Catholic, like the rest of Ohio, the increase in the Catholic vote was 15% over 2000 — which translates to 5,316 votes.

Bush won Ohio by 136,483 votes. All of those votes can't be contributed to Franciscan University, but they could be attributed to the Catholic vote overall. The work of Franciscan University students and alumni was a witness and a rallying cry for others throughout Ohio. Franciscan is called “a city on a hill,” and on Nov. 2, it proved worthy of that description.

Here is an example of what happens when Catholic institutions have a strong Catholic identity: They can transform both culture and politics.

I asked Hernon what he thought was the moral of the election, and he put it succinctly: “The blue-collar values of Catholics no longer match up with the Democratic Party agenda.”

Deal W. Hudson is writing a book on Catholics in politics.